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A safe pair of hands; The Insiders Rhona's psychological techniques aid emergency decision-making.

Byline: Graeme Smith

ON the face of it, the skills required to command an oil platform and be responsible the lives of scores of men in the North Sea may not resemble those of a surgeon performing a crucial operation in a hospital.

But both are high risk with disastrous consequences if the teams involved make a significant error.

Both disciplines have common problems and opportunities - and both can learn from the aviation industry.

For around quarter of a century Rhona Flin, Professor of Applied Psychology and Director of the Industrial Psychology Research Centre at the University of Aberdeen, has been helping make the oil industry a safer place to work.

More recently her work has been helping health services in the UK and around the globe eliminate avoidable mistakes for which some people pay the ultimate price.

She and her team investigate how human factors can influence safety and how we can learn lessons from both the way people do things successfully and incidents where mistakes have had terrible consequences.

An example of the latter was the tragic death of Elaine Bromiley in 2005 after anaesthetists were unable to place a breathing tube down her throat during a minor operation.

Instead of using the emergency procedure of puncturing her throat in a tracheotomy, doctors panicked and struggled for 20 minutes to insert the tube and by then, she had suffered irreversible brain damage.

In marked contrast was the calm behaviour of the pilot of a US passenger plane which hit a flock of geese during takeoff. He remained calm, made all the correct decisions and landed the aircraft safely on the Hudson River saving the lives of all 155 passengers because he had rehearsed emergency landings in simulators many times before.

The use of simulators in the oil industry and now in the medical world is growing rapidly - driven by the work of Professor Flin and fellow behavioural psychologists.

But it was to the advertising industry rather than the industrial world that attracted Rhona when she moved from Glasgow to study in Aberdeen.

She is the daughter of Ewen Bain, one of Scotland's most famous cartoonists and creator of Angus Og who entertained Daily Record readers for 30 years.

After completing her PhD in cognitive psychology and memory she joined a team involved in applied work looking at eyewitness identification and working with the police on photofit and lineups.

That whetted her appetite for real-world problems and when she moved to Robert Gordon University for a lectureship, she began working with industry through the Business School. She said before the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988 she had already started to look at stress in offshore occupations but there was little enthusiasm for the involvement of a psychologist investigating what was going on in the UK industry - in marked contrast to the Norwegian sector.

Rhona said: "At that time it was very hard to get a psychology researcher on to a platform or rig to do any work, yet the Norwegians, from the very earliest days of their industry, had psychologists and other social scientists studying aspects of offshore working life."

But that changed when the Lord Cullen report into the disaster and the loss of 167 lives highlighted how human factors had not only influenced the cause but also the poor emergency response.

"I was one of the very few psychologists in the UK who knew anything about the oil industry and I was given two contracts from the Health and Safety Executive," she said. "One was to look at the selection and training and competence assessment of Offshore Installation Managers (OIMs) and the other on safety culture.

"I went to various organisations including the police, fire service, NASA, military and British Airways to see what they were doing which could be brought back to the industry. That led me into whole line of work which has continued on the psychology of emergency command and looking at things like decision-making and leadership in high-stress situations."

Her work has been a contributory factor in safety improvements in the oil and gas industry including the increased use of simulators although it took a further 20 years and the 2010 Macondo disaster in the Gulf of Mexico to finally persuade some in the industry of the importance of non-technical training and assessment.

Having identified the value of simulators in crew resource management in the airline industry, Rhona and her colleagues supported the use of simulators for the assessment of these nontechnical skills.

She said: "They are great for training and assessment and if someone can't handle it in the simulator they might be all right on the night but I don't think most companies want to take that risk."

The same applies to many other industries and her offshore work has led to research recommendations into how to avoid preventable accidents in operating theatres which is being adopted in Australia and Japan as well as the UK.

"In very high demand situations people should know how to communicate effectively with each other and take decisions in a manner appropriate to the situation - which may mean fast decisionmaking.

"Clear leadership is needed and good feedback may be necessary with people in the team prepared to speak up and challenge. It was clear in aviation, before changes were introduced, that co-pilots were frightened to speak up and tell the captain that they thought there was something wrong. One American psychologist said, after watching co-pilots in the simulator and listening to voice tapes, the co-pilots would rather die than contradict the captain and this remains an issue across industry about how status affects people in the workplace. The more junior people are, then less experienced and more cautious about speaking out.

"One of the projects we are currently involved in is looking at how surgeons make decisions when they are operating. Most of the decision-making is done before the start - whether to operate and how they will do that operation - but there might be vital decisions to make during the operation, particularly if things don't go to plan, if the tumour is in a slightly different place, the fracture is a different dimension, or someone in the team does something you weren't expecting," she said.

"Psychologically, these decisions are exactly the same as the ones airline pilots and OIMs have to make."

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Background Rhona has a PHD in cognitive psychology

Committed Rhona Flin works to make oil industry safe place to work
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 5, 2013
Words:1097
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